The Importance Of Knowing Your Customers’ Language

While doing keyword research for a company, I started to think about something that has always been in front of me. Where usually I think in terms of “trigger words” such as “sale”, “free” and “limited time offer,” I realized there is another layer to the wording we use to communicate to customers and Internet users.

A key starting point to any conversion is agreeing on the meaning of terms. This is where keyword research becomes tricky. For one client, the term “auto parts” is the one that drives in the most traffic. This is the phrase they target because it’s the one they use themselves. I checked to see if their site performed for the phrase, “car parts”, and lo and behold, there was no activity whatsoever. This meant that if the language used by some searchers was “car parts”, they would not be taken to the auto parts site.

In another example, for a local company that serves two counties, I added the phrase “Bucks and Montgomery counties” to a homepage sentence because the business only takes local customers. Being a local myself, the typical slang is “Bux/Mont”, which I chose to not optimize for on the homepage, but can experiment with elsewhere on the site. I did, however, place the word “counties” last, in a space saving move and went with what I, as a local, would have used. The client asked me to put “county” after each word, so it would come out as “Bucks county and Montgomery county.” Although it’s redundant, I realized it may work better for searches that isolated just one county. I realized that my being familiar with the area skewed my objectivity. My knowledge of the local language had interfered.

Confusion of terms

Another area for confusion is the word “social.” It no longer refers to a backyard cookout or single club meet and greet. The word means too many things today. This contributes to angry dialog, when groups disagree on terms. Blog posts have appeared lately on the topic of words being used as ammunition. Of course, this has always been true, but today the target reaches a larger group and more misunderstandings occur as a result. We can’t hope to communicate well with each other when we can’t agree on the definition of terms.

Language is intertwined with with emotion because of how we interpret words. For example, the word “gay” no longer means “happy” in some parts of the world. When you combine frustration with communication with the frustration of using computer software and web sites, you have the makings for disaster.

Human behavior and information retrieval

Say, for example, you run a web site for mothers. It could be health, family, children, business, education or ecommerce oriented. I would wager that most sites targeting women have not studied the women they serve—and that’s unfortunate, because there’s some great research out there.

One study, called Understanding the Information Behavior of Stay-at-Home Mothers Through Affect, by Karen E. Fisher and Carol F. Landry from the University of Washington, wanted to know what types of information stay-at-home moms look for on the Internet and how they go about it. They wrote:

“Learning and adopting participants’ ‘language’ (e.g. play dates, melt-downs) greatly improved the efficiency of the study and increased the trustworthiness of the data.”

This illustrates another point: trust. We’re more likely to trust community dialog, product descriptions or introductory homepage content when we understand the language. We like to be on the same page and we like to be addressed as being on the same page as well.

Author Karl Albrecht wrote in his book Social Intelligence, “Words are more than mere lifeless symbols and signals. They are the very structure of thought.” How many SEOs are looking at their keyword lists with this in mind?

The future of search

There’s a glimmer of it with Bing. One of the things the new Bing search engine attempts to do is provide more information on your search result before you even click to a landing page. This offers your brain a chance to know if this is a good match for you in an efficient way.

There’s a fascinating French study called “An Adaptable Search Engine for Multimodal Information Retrieval” conducted by Giles Hubert and Josiane Mothe. They describe information as a “set of concepts.” A search engine is based on two concepts: information unit and information need. A search engine evaluates the matching of information units with an information need.

“On one hand, in ad hoc keyword search, an information need represents a query and an information unit represents a document or part of a document. On the other hand, a category search gathers two processes. First, a categorization process searches for representative categories for each document or document part to them associate these categories to the document or document part.”

The study refers to other research. One is on a visual interface based on a thesaurus to support information retrieval. There is no free text user query offered. (I could picture SEOs looking up the thesaurus version of their top keywords….)

Another is a study that enables searchers to add their own terms to available ontologies, allowing both free text and controlled vocabulary. It was interesting to look at search from a search engineers’ perspective. The idea for the main study was to see if providing both free text queries along with searching by category creates a better system. Google does this to some extent by correcting what it thinks are spelling errors and it tries to clarify your query.

What a search engine cannot do is determine if you mean “server” the waiter, “server” the computer or the best throwing form to use while “serving” the volleyball. For this, they might just have to learn to read our minds.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Content | Search & Usability


About The Author: is the SEO/Usability Consultant for Cre8pc. Her work combines website and software application usability testing with a working knowledge of search engine optimization.

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  • SeoNext

    rightly said, clients always comeup with the keywords they normally use or interpret, however detailed study on clients inductry specific serach is always critical. Just joined in today but seems to be a place i should be stick to…

  • nickstamoulis

    Very interesting, understanding your customers is one of the key areas to understand, for sure…here is a great post about this topic as well:


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